Wednesday, July 05, 2006

From Beijing to Tibet, Controversy on Rails (and 3,000+ Soldiers)

From the Globe and Mail, Canada

By Geoffrey York

July 3, 2006 -- The first train from Beijing to Tibet, speeding past thousands of soldiers and policemen in camps and convoys, gave a rare glimpse into China's massive program of military control over the Tibetan plateau.

Green-uniformed soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, along with police and other agents, were posted at intervals along the high-altitude railway yesterday, sometimes only a few hundred meters apart.

They stood at attention intending to intimidate anyone who wanted to disrupt the train.

Huge convoys of military vehicles were visible from the train as it passed through Tibet and the neighboring province of Qinghai on Monday.

One convoy included about 100 troop-carrying trucks, another had 84. A third convoy, with dozens more vehicles, was spotted on the final approach to Lhasa.

Military camps and bases could be seen along the railway tracks, and soldiers stood in rows at the main stations as the train passed.The train, the first to travel from Beijing to Lhasa on the $4.2-billion line that opened on Saturday, carried large numbers of police and security agents among the 300 "working staff" aboard.

Tibetan exiles who oppose the railway argue that it will further militarize the Tibetan plateau by making it easier for Beijing to move soldiers in and out of the region.

Officially, the Chinese government says the railway is intended to develop Western China and bring economic benefits to Tibetans and others. But an announcement on the train's speaker system says the railway is also aimed at "maintaining social stability" - a catch phrase for preventing protests.

Some Chinese newspapers have reported that 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers will be stationed along the railway route to keep it secure.

The first train from Beijing pulled into Lhasa's new railway station at 8:55 last night -- less than 48 hours after departing from the Chinese capital.

Passengers were greeted by Tibetan maidens who draped white scarves around their necks in a traditional Tibetan greeting.

The railway to Tibet, built over mountain passes and permafrost, is considered an engineering feat. Climbing more than 5,000 meters at its peak, it is the highest-altitude railway in the world.

From a technical standpoint, the first Beijing-Lhasa express was a success. It arrived on time -- in fact, five minutes ahead of schedule -- despite a marathon journey across the breadth of China, from east to west, from low coastal plains to the "roof of the world."

The innovative system of oxygen enrichment on the Bombardier-built trains was effective in fighting altitude sickness.

Hundreds of Chinese passengers were fascinated by every aspect of the journey, showing the potential tourism bonanza the train could generate.

But questions remain about the railway's impact on Tibet's fragile and sensitive environment.

Despite a $190-million government program of environmental protection along the railway, and despite Beijing's pledges to safeguard "every blade of grass" in the Tibetan plateau, there were signs of problems yesterday.

Discarded supplies and junked equipment were conspicuous along the railway line. Rubber tires, scrap metal, chunks of cement, leftover tubes, plastic bags and bottles were among the garbage left beside the tracks.

This was a clear violation of the government's own policy for the line. "We have to ensure that no waste is left along the track," a senior railway official told reporters on board the train on Saturday before the train entered Tibet.

Chinese authorities have built tunnels below the railway to allow animals to cross safely. But Monday, the train caused panic among yaks that belong to Tibetan herdsman. Terrified yaks raced away from the train as it passed.